Sunday, November 9, 2014

Cervantes’ Severe Ordeal

Featuring Henry Edward Watts

Introduction to our series Cervantes' "Don Quixote" Reforms Literature:
The fame of the most celebrated Spanish author rests upon a far more solid basis than merely that of having written the most readable and tender of humorous romances. He reformed literature. He tilted at windmills as truly as ever his hero did. And now, Henry Edward Watts

Time: 1605
Place: Spain

The accession of the new King, which had been hailed as "the light after darkness," had little effect on Cervantes' fortunes. Philip III, though he had some taste for letters, and was not without sprouts of kindliness in his heart, had been by education and by an over-strict regimen in youth debased, so that he was even more completely a slave to the priestly influence than his father had been, without any of his father's ability or force of character. The Duke of Lerma was "the Atlas who bore the burden of the monarchy."[1] He was a man, according to Quevedo, "alluring and dexterous rather than intelligent; ruled by the interested cunning of his own creatures but imperious with all others; magnificent, ostentatious; choosing his men only by considerations of his own special policy or from personal friendship." Under such a man, who ruled the King at his will, it was not likely that any portion of the royal benevolence should light on Miguel de Cervantes. Moreover, the crowd of suppliants at court was very great, their appetite stimulated doubtless by the flattering reports of the new King's liberal disposition.

A contemporary writer laments with pathetic zeal and pious indignation the lot of many famous captains and valiant soldiers, who, after serving the King all their lives and being riddled with wounds, were not only pushed aside into corners without any reward, but condemned to see unworthy men without merit loaded with benefits, merely through enjoying the favor of some minister or courtier.[2] The Duke of Lerma, as one who professed a contempt for all letters and learning, was even less likely to be influenced by Cervantes' literary merits than by his services as a soldier--services which had now become an old story. Disappointed in his hopes of preferment, Cervantes had to maintain himself and his family by the exercise of his pen--writing, as we learn, letters and memorials for those who needed them,[3] while busy upon his new book.

Without the gifts which are in favor at court--unskilled in the arts of solicitation--we can imagine, with a man of Cervantes' temperament, what a special hell it must have been--"in suing long to bide." About this time he seems almost to have dropped out of life. The four years between 1598 and 1602 are the obscurest in his story. We do not know where he lived or what he did. It was the crisis of the struggle with his unrelenting evil destiny. The presumption is that he was still in the South, engaged in his humble occupation of gathering rents, of buying grain for the use of the fleet, with intervals perhaps of social enjoyment among such friends as he had made at Seville; among whom is reckoned the painter Francisco de Pacheco. This was for our hero the darkest hour before the dawn. For already, according to my calculation, he must have begun to write Don Quixote, being now (1602) in his fifty-fifth year.[4] He had duly qualified himself, by personal experience, to tell the story of the adventures of him who sought to revive the spirit of the ancient chivalry. His own romance was ended. The pathetic lines of Goethe might seem to be written for his own case:

"Wer nie sein Brod mit Thränen ass,
Wer nicht die kummervollen Nächte
Auf seinem Bette weinend sass,
Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte."[5]

Never had any man of letters to go through a severer ordeal. At last his genius found the true path for which it had been beating about so many years; but not until his prime of life had passed, when even that brave heart must have been chilled and that gay spirit deadened.


[1] The phrase was probably used by Cervantes in irony. It had been used by others before, and was a common form.

[2] Fr. Sepulveda, quoted by Navarrete.

[3] And "employed in various agencies and businesses," says Navarrete, vaguely.

[4] That Don Quixote could not have been written before 1591 is proved by the mention in chapter vi of a book published in that year. That it must have been written subsequently to 1596 is proved by the reference in chapter xix to an incident which was not ended till September, 1596 (see Navarrete). There are other hints and allusions in the story which, I think, show that it could scarcely have been begun while Philip II was alive.

[5] From Wilhelm Meister, Lehrjahre, chapter xii, thus Englished by Thomas Carlyle:

"Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the darksome hours
Weeping and watching for the morrow,
He knew you not, ye unseen Powers."

Continued on Monday, November 8th.

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